Release Date: October 16, 2015
Pop music isn’t generally a world for supporting players. Outsiders can find their place as long as they are so affirmative in their left-of-centeredness (like Lady Gaga or Grace Jones) that they attract a like-minded army to flock to them, but those for whom the limelight is not a priority are a much less familiar presence. That’s part of what makes the self-titled debut from Christine and the Queens so striking: It’s a shimmering collection of great pop songs from a magnetic performer who nonetheless seems unconcerned with being the center of attention, like a burgeoning movie star who requests to play the horny sibling or the wise older friend in a coming of age drama, rather than the lead.
“It’s rare to see a female pop artist so resistant to adoration, asking to be allowed to adore instead,” Pitchfork wrote about Christine (née Héloïse Letissier) earlier this year. That least Stone Roses-y of attitudes is clear throughout Christine’s first proper LP, which bounds along like a collection of curious observations, never explicitly demanding attention but always captivating it nonetheless. Hooks poke out of the mix and then slink back underneath. Phrasings from Christine’s lyrical mix of English and French — a near-identical version of the album was released entirely in French under the name Chaleur humaine in 2014 — draw you in for a line at a time. Arrangements swell but never go for the knockout punch. It’s brilliant in its quiet confidence, its willingness to intrigue rather than stun.
The best example might be the album’s opener, the insidious “iT.” Humorously literal in its mock penis envy, the song finds Christine emerging from mostly unintelligible verses (“The bird-dogs who are pulling my hair because / Their teeth should ravage a golden beard I’ve lost”) to declare on the chorus, “Cause I won / I’m a man now / I’ve got it / I’m a man now,” over gently descending imitation steel-drums and shuffling snare. It’s genuinely exultant, but also a tricky sentiment to immediately parse — especially once the “Pagan Poetry”-like faux-backing singers show up to chide her for her arrogance (“She draws her own crotch by herself / But she’ll lose because it’s a fake.”) Christine has said that the song comes from a real place of having wondered if life would be easier as a man — and that the responding chants represent the drag queens who helped her self-actualize as a pop performer, now keeping her in check. But the song resists easy reading, and is all the more replayable for it.
Identity confusion and fluidity — particularly as far as gender is concerned — play a key role in Christine’s songs, but if they’re for anyone in particular, you’d never know from their all-inclusive warmth. “If you don’t like who you are, invent yourself a better self for you to be,” those drag queens advised her, and she heeds it throughout the album, teasing, “Just when you thought I’d be still a little girl / I’m one of the guys” on “Half Ladies” and finding ecstasy through drawing on her face with magic marker on “Tilted.” Even in the more straightforward or sentimental songs — the heartrending Perfume Genius duet “Jonathan,” the “Heartless”-quoting “Paradis Perdu” — she never gets subsumed by her feelings, always allowing herself the possibility of escape to a better life, a better Christine. “I am actually good / Can’t help it if we’re tilted,” she sings, and we have to believe (and sing along with) her.
With her well-tucked bedsheet of a voice, sparkling synth-pop productions, and the billing of a nonexistent backing band — those tut-tutting backing vocals from “iT” are the closest thing to “the Queens” you’ll hear — an obvious point of comparison with Christine might be Marina and the Diamonds, whose Froot also ranks among the best pop albums of 2015. But where Marina’s appeal lies in her writing her emotions large through her music, Christine achieves something more challenging and arguably richer in gleefully obfuscating hers — making her as difficult to read in song as on her minimalist and tonally flat LP cover, but essentially inviting you to come and be puzzling with her. She may be too enigmatic to reach star status in the States, but that’s fine. Pop has too many thirsty leads as is; we could use some more wise older friends and horny siblings.